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Airborne Again

Restoration Expert Returns WW II Fighter Plane to the Skies

August 19, 1997|BORIS YARO

Aircraft restorer Pete Regina is a rare bird. He also likes to work on them.

This former TWA "Mechanic of the Year" built his first plane, a Piper Cub, in his Reseda yard in 1966. He had it towed to Van Nuys Airport where he persuaded a retired pilot to teach him how to fly. Since then, Regina, who works for himself, has rebuilt numerous planes, including a World War II British Spitfire which is now at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

His latest project has been rebuilding one of America's premier fighters of World War II: a P-51 Mustang.

Known as "the Cadillac of the Sky," this P-51 Mustang (Army serial number 45-11471) was one of the 16,000 built during World War II. They each cost about $68,000 to build, but they're worth $1 million now.

About 149 were still flying when Regina put one more back in the air. The plane was a wreck when Regina first saw it in 1984. He and a crew had used parts of it to build a racing plane.

The owners sold the aircraft in 1992, and it ended up at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica. Then the museum decided to restore the plane, converting it to an especailly rare trainer, with two seats instead of one.

Museum director Dan Ryan said there is only one other such plane remaining in the world.

Regina began work on the P-51 Mustang in May 1966, when a truck arrived at his small Van Nuys Airport workshop hauling in the first pieces of the plane. He did most of the work himself, except the overhaul of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and some wing repairs.

The plane took its maiden flight March 17. Museum of Flying pilot Buck Rodgers asked Regina if he wanted to come along for the ride.

Regina declined.

"For a pilot, to ride in the back seat is no fun," he said. "If that's where I have to ride, I'd rather stay home."

Too bad. Ryan says he is now charging $5,000 for rides.

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